Archie Gemmill, Peter Shilton, Mark Wright and John Robertson were among Paul Blades’s blue-chip team-mates at Derby on a trail that might well have led him into European football.
During his roller-coaster of a ride at the Baseball Ground, the defender helped win back-to-back promotions and later became a club record signing at both Norwich and Rotherham.
But he had a second and no less interesting band of colleagues – one with Molineux connections – across almost a decade in the East Midlands.
Dean Saunders, later the Rams’ player of the year and the scorer of around 50 goals for them, was one and Blades remembers Rob Hindmarch as the first signing of the Arthur Cox era that turned abject despair in Division Three into unbridled top-flight joy.
He played alongside him in Derby’s rearguard as well as sort of following him to Wolves and might also have named John Burridge and Floyd Streete among the dozens of others with whom he shared a dressing room adorned with white shirts. But what about John McAlle and John Richards?
It’s easy to regard these two legends as one-club men, such was their massive service at Molineux. After their combined tally of 996 League and cup appearances for Wolves, though, there was time spent elsewhere – McAlle with Sheffield United, Richards in Madeira and both with the Rams.
“John joined Derby in 1982, a few months before I did,” the striker recalled. “We used to share a car to travel for training and matches and the first priority was to try to get them away from the bottom of the Second Division.
“They had a lot of the sort of financial problems Wolves had had but I think we both enjoyed playing first-team football there.
“Dave Swindlehurst was up front, Mike Brolly, who we faced as a Grimsby player in the League Cup, was there as well, so were George Foster (later a scout at Wolves under Dave Jones), Steve Cherry in goal and a full-back called John Barton.
“I went on three months’ loan in the November if I remember right when Peter Taylor was in charge and the results did pick up a little, even if I didn’t contribute many goals. I know I scored one at Burnley, which was often a lucky ground for me, and managed another somewhere else…..so my total isn’t 194 after all!
“Paul Blades was still only 17 or 18 but a promising defender, a good player, and I’m sure John’s experience helped him when they were playing together.
“He went on to have a really good career and our paths crossed again when he signed for Wolves almost ten years later. I don’t recall getting to know him well here, though, because I was a non-executive director then (from late 1994) and didn’t have that much contact with the players.”
Blades’s Derby debut came as a 17-year-old in a 2-1 Second Division defeat at Leeds in September, 1982 and, after suffering one relegation, he was very much part of the back-to-back promotions that lifted the club back to the First Division before the end of the decade.
He played around 200 games for them in all and would have had some UEFA Cup travels on his CV had the club’s fifth-place finish in 1988-89 not been rendered less beneficial because of the post-Heysel ban on English clubs competing in Europe.
Richards (left) recalls Taylor spending a lot of time walking his dog Beth around the pitches but Blades has a different memory.
“He ordered us apprentices to work hand-in-hand with the groundsman on the pitch before a big FA Cup tie at home to Nottingham Forest,” he said. “Brian Clough was still at Forest, in charge of a very good side, so Peter had us waterlogging the pitch. It was already a mudbath but he wanted any advantage he could have for us – and it worked because we won!
“John Richards and John McAlle were coming towards the end of their playing time when they signed here but some of the lads had played against them and the rest of us knew their reputation as terrific players. What careers they’d had! They were people to look up to.
“I think my debut came because John McAlle was unwell and his deputy, Glenn Skivington, was injured. John and I played a few games together, including half a dozen or so on the bounce, and he was very steady and a good influence.
“We needed settling down because there wasn’t a bean in the bank at the club. Rob Palmer, who has gone on to have an excellent career as a TV broadcaster, was one of the apprentices I was very friendly with and I remember being in our digs and the landlady saying she wasn’t sure how long I could stay there because she wasn’t getting paid.”
A word here, too, for Rob Hindmarch, who died from motor neurone disease aged only 41 and whose 2002 funeral Blades attended. The north-easterner may have flopped at Wolves after being signed and quickly appointed captain in 1990 but impressions in the East Midlands were much more favourable.
“The backbone of the club – a man’s man” was how Arthur Cox described him as he skippered Derby to their second successive promotion. Blades added: “I played a lot as a right-back early in my Derby career but had plenty of games alongside Rob.”
There’s one other former team-mate I felt inclined to ask about as it felt geographically relevant and still topical.
Darren Ferguson moved to Molineux in January, 1994, a year and a half after Blades, whose long stay at Derby was followed by a £700,000 move to Norwich in 1990 and then a transfer to the West Midlands that was worth half that much.
The Scot is now in his fourth spell at London Road but the record-breaking play-off exit he and his squad recently suffered at the hands of Sheffield Wednesday caused only modest ripples in the mind of the Peterborough-born Blades.
“Although I grew up there and played for the town boys’ team, Posh never took much notice of me,” he added. “I still go over there because it’s where my mum lives but the early interest in me came from Leicester, Villa and Derby and that’s why I have come to spend so much of my life in the Midlands.”
The 58-year-old retains friends in the professional game and has this month spent time in Spain with his 1980s Derby pals Andy Garner, who is still in Nigel Clough’s backroom team at Mansfield, and Dick Pratley.